I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, but if I did, one of them would have been to post more often. Since I have done a decent job keeping my real New Year’s Resolutions (I’ve been to the gym every day this week!), I’m gonna pick up the blogging pace. Sure, it’s not hard to beat the one-post-every-two-month pace that I’ve set so far in 2014, but I’ve been thinking of some ideas, and it’s high time I put virtual pen to virtual paper. Here’s some of the albums I’ve spent time with this year and my thoughts.
Oxymoron - Schoolboy Q: Oxymoron was my most anticipated release of 2014, and I am still deciding whether or not it reached my lofty expectations. Throughout the underrated Setbacks and the justly celebrated Habits and Contradictions, as well as his energetic guest verses, most notably A$AP Rocky’s “Brand New Guy,” Q established himself as Black Hippy’s unhinged id, indulging in drugs and quick to violence. On songs such as “Birdz and the Beez” and “Blessed,” (both not coincidentally featuring Kendrick Lamar), he revealed a pensive and thoughtful side that he buried in his more aggressive tracks. Oxymoron is a bleak affair. Even the celebratory tracks (“Man of the Year,” “Break the Bank”) are dark and rapped with gritted teeth. “Prescription/Oxymoron” is a revealing portrait of Q’s struggles with pill addiction, but it’s also unfortunately a seven minute slog that saps the album of much of its energy. The Tyler, the Creator produced “The Purge,” is another misstep, despite a big-time Kurupt verse.
Oxymoron shines when he raises his energy level and attacks the beat like a pitbull, like in the album’s amazing opening trio. ”Gangsta” starts the record with its scat-like chrous, featuring Q barking his signature ad-libs. It’s a track only Q could write. The party tracks, “Los Awesome,” the dirtiest-sounding Neptunes track since “Trill,” and “Collard Greens,” with its bilingual Kendrick Lamar verse, are two of the best tracks in the Black Hippy catalog. Though the rest of the record is more grounded and the rapping is generally excellent, it is not nearly as much fun to spend an hour with Q on Oxymoron as it has been in the past. It’s a great rap record, but it would have been nice if it showcased more of Q’s vibrant personality.
Emaar - Tinariwen: There are few records as evocative of a specific place as Tinariwen’s latest. The rumbling, snaking guitar lines sound to me like wind blowing on sand dunes, and gliding sidewinders, with production as sparse and barren as the Sahara itself. Now, would I think the music of Tinariwen resemble the desert if I did not know that they were a group of Malinese refugees? I think it would. As they say, you can take the Tuareg out of the Sahara, but you can’t take the Sahara out of the Tuareg. Or maybe nobody says that. Either way, Emaar, the group’s first recording since the arrest of lead singer Abdullah Ag Lamida, is more urgent and insistent than Tinariwen’s previous records, songs like “Chaghaybou” and “Timadrit in Sahara” surge with a near-supernatural momentum, building to the release of “Aghregh Medin.” Emaar sounds like nothing else.
St. Vincent - St. Vincent: Annie Clark is one of our most inventive songwriters. She’s a masterful lyricist, gifted melodist and few people can sell a better vocal hook. Strange Mercy, one of my favorite albums of 2011, perfected Clark’s modus operandi at that point, creating pretty orchestral pop songs with disarmingly hard edges. On St. Vincent, the edges take center stage, with heavily processed guitars highlighting aggressive tracks like “Bring Me Your Loves” and “Birth in Reverse,” and percolating in the back of bouncier tracks like “Rattlesnake” and “Digital Witness.” There are still softer tracks, such as “I Prefer Your Love” and the beautiful, brilliant “Severed Crossed Fingers,” but the best moments on the record come when Clark cranks it up. St. Vincent is the first of her releases to even occasionally match the intensity of her live performances. The moment near the end of “Huey Newton,” when the synth, reminiscent of the famous “Billie Jean” bassline, gives way to blown out Fever to Tell guitars is one of the most exhilarating I’ve heard all year.
St. Vincent also finds Clark at the top of her lyrical game. “Prince Johnny,” one of the record’s quieter moments, is a character study about an immature playboy, with excellent, bordering on surrealist imagery (“Remember the time we went and snorted/the piece of the Berlin Wall you had extorted”, “You traced the Andes with your index”). ”Digital Witness” manages to say in three minutes what the Arcade Fire tried to prove in 75 (more on that record later, possibly. Timely, I know). “Birth in Reverse” opens with, “Oh what an ordinary day/take out the garbage, masturbate.” Her cutting lyrics mesh beautifully with the backing tracks, and her vocals enhance the formidable combination even further.
St. Vincent is Clark’s most self-assured, and best release yet, and one of my favorites of the year, so far.
Non-2014 Album I Listened To For the First Time in 2014:
Stranded - Roxy Music: Before this year, I had always known of Roxy, but I always heard about them in the context of other “glam” acts like Bowie and T. Rex. I knew and liked “Love is a Drug” and “More Than This,” but I was never moved to dive deeper until the ILX poll earlier this year. So, I blame EVERYBODY ON EARTH for failing to let me know until now just how UN-FUCKING-BELIEVABLE EVERY SONG ON THIS RECORD IS! I mean, fucking “Amazona,”? Have you ever heard such a guitar tone? And that’s probably only the fourth or fifth best song on the whole album! ”Street Life” is one of the all-time great album openers, with countless hooks (Ferry’s wild delivery at the end of the verses, the horn riff in the beginning and middle eight, the guitar riff, the backing vocals). ”Psalm” is an eight-minute epic that more than earns its length, building to an epic climax of Ferry’s vibrato and piano, Eddie Jobson’s searing electric violin and the “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” backing vocals. ”Serenade” is a great piano pop song (Elvis Costello owes it a huge favor) with a searing guitar solo. ”Just Like You,” has a beautiful unique melody, another great guitar solo (bow down to Phil Manzanera) and one of Ferry’s greatest vocal performances. And then there’s “Mother of Pearl.” I can only dream about how my life would be different if I’d heard “Mother of Pearl” when I was younger.
Country Life and Siren, Roxy’s two following albums, are just as good and you should buy them now. You know, every once in I while I will experience a great ennui, that I have heard all the music worth hearing and that eventually my passion will dwindle as I return to the familiar. Then, every once in a while I will find something that restores my faith, that reveals just how shallow my musical experience really is and how much more there is to explore. The first five Roxy records are proof that there is always something more, often right under your nose.
And seriously, you all suck for not telling me how great these records are before now.
Y’all didn’t think you were gonna see me? I’m the Osiris of this shit! I know I’m late and that 2013 was entire MONTHS ago. Real life shit got in the way, but now I’m here to for the 14th edition of my Billboard review. I started this when I was fifteen, and I’m sure as shit not stopping now.
After murmurings in 2012 in the form of “Call Me Maybe” and “Gangnam Style,” the memeification of the Billboard charts took full effect in 2013. In February, the Billboard Hot 100 changed its methodology to include Youtube views. In theory, this development makes a lot of sense. Tons of young listeners (the only people this particular chart cares about) use Youtube as a primary source of music. But introducing Youtube submits the Hot 100 to the mercurial whims of the Internet, leading to some chart randomness and some truly left field songs to climb the charts. Kanye West’s biggest chart hit of the year wasn’t “Bound 2” or “New Slaves,” but his classic “Gone,” reaching number 18 on the back of a viral video. “Harlem Shake” topped the charts for five weeks just because some weirdo decided to film himself dancing to the song in a Daft Punk helmet. Smarter people than I have noted that the new Billboard methodologies marginalize minority audience and the results seem to bear that out. All the artists who reached number one in 2013 are white, and many reached number one by appropriating traditionally black genres. It’s a disturbing trend, especially after Hip-Hop and R&B dominated the 2000s.
Though the skin tone of the charting artists was monochromatic, the hits were somewhat varied. 2013 saw traditional pop ballads, R&B pastiche, trap music, novelty rap and whatever the fuck “Royals” is, reach the top of the charts. There were no classics like “Call Me Maybe,” but how good was last year’s crop of number ones? Let’s find out.
“Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars: 12/22/2012-1/26/2013 (6 Weeks)
I already covered this song in last year’s roundup. Here’s the short version: This song sounds like The Police, but is not as good as the Police.
“Thrift Shop” – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Wanz: 2/2-2/23, 4/6-4/13 (6 Weeks)
Let me be clear. It’s hard for me to be rational when talking about this song. Macklemore, the rap game Martin Prince, deigns to give us fashion advice when he has the worst hair in music since well…Vanilla Ice. He manages to stay on the beat, but his grating frayed vocal, coupled with Ryan Lewis’s Playmobil® “My First Rap Beat,” induces migraines, even before you register his lyrics. I don’t endorse the opinion that “Thrift Shop” is tone-deaf or classist, but I do think that every bar drips with a palpable condescension. “I’m not like those other rappers, with their luxury brands and expensive cars,” he says. Well, Macklemore, spending less cash does not make your message any less materialistic than “Versace.” The only way Macklemore is different from all the other rappers is that those rappers occasionally have something interesting to say. Oh right, and he’s white, hence he’s a Grammy winner. I’ll give a point to Wanz, though. He seems like a cool guy.
“Harlem Shake” – Baauer: 3/2-3/30 (5 weeks).
If you type “Harlem Shake” into Youtube, you get 4.8 million results. You have to scroll down to the bottom of the page to get a full version of the audio. The song is inextricably tied to the meme, which jumped the shark sometime between the song reaching the top of the charts and Chris Bosh doing his version of the Bluth Chicken Dance, but it stands pretty well on its own. The meme came about because the drop is fucking huge, with the air raid synths giving way to the massive bass line. “Harlem Shake” is such an odd collection of sounds, with handclaps, keyboards ripped from “Goodie Bag,” a high-pitched Spanish hook and even a roaring lion. If every generation gets the “Macarena” it deserves, then we are waaaaay better than people from the 90s.
“When I Was Your Man” – Bruno Mars: 4/20 (1 Week)
Bruno Mars is a talented songwriter, but his genre experiments never feel like more than pastiche. In “When I Was Your Man,” he tries a piano ballad in the vein of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” or “Vienna,” to express his melodramatic regret about driving his woman away. To be fair to Mr. Mars, he nails the tone on this one, with a song structure that is familiar, but not too predictable, but I have never bought this type of song. The problem lies in the lyrics, which strive to be earnest, but end up cheesy and fail to support the impassioned vocal. We need a name for people who are objectively talented, but whose overall competence comes at the expense of their personality. Bruno Mars is one of those. Ooh, let’s call them John Stocktons.
“Just Give Me a Reason” – Pink ft. Nate Ruess: 4/27-5/11 (3 Weeks)
For the first half of her career, Pink had an attitude. She was marketed as the punky alternative to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, taking potshots at them in her lyrics. Now, Pink is the person they call when Katy Perry passes on a track. “Just Give Me A Reason,” sounds like an outtake from last year’s fun. album, which I strongly dislike. Like “We Are Young,” the verses are far too busy, with chord changes that are too complicated for the melody, and Nate Ruess’s fifth rate Freddie Mercury impression is as grating as ever. The saving graces: the melody on the chorus is great, and the transition to the bridge is seamless, not too mention Pink’s powerful performance. But how am I supposed to buy these two as an evenly matched couple if I get the strong impression that Pink could beat Ruess in arm wrestling with just one pinky?
“Can’t Hold Us” – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: 5/18-6/15 (5 Weeks)
I don’t hate “Can’t Hold Us.” It’s a pump up song, meant to be played at NBA arenas or commercials for sports drinks, and it seems to succeed. There is a neat horn section in the middle that sounds like “Make It Rain.” The problem again is Macklemore, who isn’t as unbearably condescending as he is on other tracks, but his verses are empty space. Macklemore essentially plays a Flo Rida role, filling the space between the hooks. Not one hot line. The closest he gets to dropping a hot line is a hamfisted reference to everybody’s favorite Price is Right game. Ray Dalton seems nice, though.
“Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell & T.I.: 6/22-9/7 (12 Weeks)
Do you want to know the easiest way to get to number one on the Billboard charts in the Youtube era? Hire some naked models to appear in your video. It doesn’t hurt that “Blurred Lines” is a pretty good song on its own right, with a creamy bass line, evoking the lighthearted that regularly topped the charts in the mid-70s. Yes, it’s hard to look past the lyrics, which when combined with the video are at best icky and at worst predatory. I think “Blurred Lines,” is a come on, not a demand, and “I know you want it” is hardly an original sentiment in R&B music. Thicke is creepy, but the song is fun, and T.I.’s rap echoes his great “My Love” verse. “Blurred Lines” is a good song that neither I, nor anybody else, ever needs to hear again. It’s gonna kill at 2010s party’s in 20 years, though.
“Roar” – Katy Perry: 9/14-9/21 (2 Weeks)
“Roar,” Katy’s eighth number one single and potential answer to what the fox says, has a great chorus, but otherwise feels a bit underwritten. Where’s the bridge? There’s a pause where the bridge should be, but then nothing. I feel cheated. “Roar” is incomplete, and feels derivative of other, better songs, even in the chorus (the tired reference to “Eye of the Tiger”; the notable similarity to Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”), and it seemed to reach number one by default. It’s the sign of a huge pop star that even the minor singles dominate the radio.
“Wrecking Ball” – Miley Cyrus: 9/28-10/5; 12/14 (3 Weeks)
Like for “Blurred Lines,” I can’t go any further without talking about the video. One would not expect the video for a song called “Wrecking Ball” to be subtle, but come on. There she is, tongue-bathing a sledgehammer, unconvincingly crying during her Sinead O’Connor close up and obviously riding a goddamn wrecking ball through a plastic wall. The song itself is about as subtle as the video. It has a great vocal melody on the verse, and on the first half of the chorus, but those “WREEEECCKK ME!” bleats during what should be the resolution and emotional climax irritate more than they titillate. At least somebody remembered to write a bridge (AHEM KATY PERRY!).
“Royals” – Lorde: 10/12-12/7 (9 Weeks)
“Royals” eventually reached “Rolling in the Deep” levels of radio popularity, but before it was played to death it was one of the best singles of the year. Lorde and producer/co-writer Joel Little crafted a unique hit out of a minimalist drumbeat, synth bass, and those finger-snaps. The sparse arrangement highlights Lorde’s synthetic vocal harmonies, which fill out the space. In fact, the number one hit it most resembles from the past ten years is probably “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” Of course, “Royals” strategically positions herself against the activities championed by that song and many others. Lorde crafted an anthem for those who can’t afford to go to clubs or drive Maybachs, and maybe don’t need those comforts. Instead, she’s “cracked the code,” counting her pennies on the train (public transportation!) dreaming of a day when she’s on top of the pop world writing her own rules. That day might come sooner than we think.
“The Monster” – Eminem ft. Rihanna: 12/21-12/28
Please don’t make me write anything about “Love the Way You Lie 2: Electric Boogalo.”
In summation: It was a strange year for number ones, with three legitimate left-field hits dominating the charts. It seems as if the addition of YouTube streams will somewhat democratize the Hot 100, allowing songs without much major label promotion to reach the top of the charts. However, in the future, maybe we should use our newfound power as listeners to boost somebody who is not as shitty as Macklemore.
Worst: “Thrift Shop”
Artists (from last.fm)
1. My Morning Jacket - 370
2. Kanye West - 347
3. Chance the Rapper - 330
4. Yo La Tengo - 320
5. Pulp - 306
6. Danny Brown - 294
7. Vampire Weekend - 239
8. Run the Jewels - 218
9. They Might Be Giants - 214
10. The Dismemberment Plan - 213
Tracks (from iTunes, edited to one track per artist):
1. Cocoa Butter Kisses (ft. Vic Mensa & Twista) - Chance the Rapper
2. Bound 2 - Kanye West
3. Versace - Migos
4. Banana Clipper (ft. Big Boi) - Run the Jewels
5. Weight - Mikal Cronin
6. Well You Better - Yo La Tengo
7. UOENO Remix - Black Hippy
8. Red 2 Go - Danny Brown
9. Here Comes the Night Time - Arcade Fire
10. 3 way tie (The Mother We Share - Chvrches; Trying to Be Cool - Phoenix; Type of Way - Rich Homie Quan)
I’m going to start work on the Billboard 2013 review this weekend and I will hopefully finish my end of year albums list in the next couple of weeks.
Happy new year!